Above ground: fires run through here every other year. Below ground: glacier-dumped sand, long washed of its nutriment. Between the two, plants that survive in the sandplains only with the help of fungal partners whose skinny bodies worm through the acid, root-hostile soil, scavenging minerals.


We call the plants lowbush blueberries and little bluestem grass, growing ankle high between scorch-barked, straggly pitch pines. Other names, too: Little bluestem is “poverty grass” and blueberry fruit is harvested in poverty.


No leanness for migrant birds, though, who pluck at sun-puckered blueberries and wind-blown grass seed. Their bodies fatten here, storing plant-captured sunlight for migratory treks from Canada to the southern US and beyond. A dozen flickers flock like sparrows, feeding low to the ground, then scattering to shelter in pines. Field sparrows and cedar waxwings rise like dust in our wake as we traverse the fields. Palm warblers scurry rabbit-like among the blueberry plants. Above this tumble of small birds: merlins, sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels. Predators, too, need their autumnal fat and frost-edged nights make the hunters flesh-hungry. A merlin and hawk lance and twist in an aerial chase, then each wings to its own corner of the fields.


Once these sandplain communities covered large parts of coastal New England, but fire suppression has choked most with woodland. Housing development claims the rest. In a few places restoration efforts have pushed back the trees, opening habitat available nowhere else. These efforts involve controlled burns, land acquisitions, yearly mowing, signage, insurance, staffing: the poverty left by the retreat of glaciers is expensive to maintain.


8 thoughts on “Sandplain

  1. Sarah Schmidt

    Hi David,

    I don’t know whether a reply this way will get through. I read nearly every one of your Ramble blogs. Maine was my home for 13 years in the 1970s-80s. You’ve described things I never new about the blueberry barren, and with your lovely artistic writing that leads me to read and re-read to enjoy your painting with words.

    I clicked the “harvested in poverty” link. What a well written and evocative story. I wonder if things have changed any since Jeanne Marie Laskas wrote it in 2011. I was startled to read the date; what she says is so much more applicable to “election-season bravado” in 2016!

    “Except there really is no invasion, no growing national crisis. In fact, recent statistics show that immigration from Mexico has actually gone /down/*—*and steeply so—over the past decade. (An estimated 80,000 unauthorized migrants crossed the Mexican border into the United States last year, down from 500,000 ten years ago.) More to the point: There is nothing new about this story. Importing foreign labor has always been the American way, beginning with 4 million slaves from Africa. Later came the Jews and Poles, the Hungarians, Italians, and Irish, the Chinese and Japanese—everything you learned in sixth-grade social studies about the great American melting pot. And with each group came a new wave of anti-immigrant, pro-Anglo rage.

    “Our current debate over how to control our borders is really just a rehashed version of a very old one cycling over the reach of history. It’s a lively conversation about fairness and purity, about who belongs and who does not, and as a result, the people who pick our food are shamed into the shadows, nameless, mostly afraid, and certainly inconvenient to the experience of the satisfying first crunch and explosion of sugar that happens when we discover that this, oh yes, this apple is awesome.”

    It has been a delight to read your writing about Maine, my old stomping grounds (I lived in Brunswick and briefly in South Harpswell). If you explained your relocation, I missed it. I don’t know whether you’ve moved to Maine, perhaps to teach at Bowdoin College. But you still write about Sewanee. Anyway, I loved reading The Forest Unseen and the insights of years of your blogs about Southeastern forests, and it’s an added treat that you’re now writing about Maine, one of my favorite homes.

    So … thank you for the gift of your writing. I often share your blogs with my husband and nature-loving friends. We look forward to your upcoming book on trees.


    ^o^ ^o^ ^o^ ^o^ Sarah Schmidt 243 Rhodena Drive Coupeville, WA 98239 (360) 678-8396 home (360) 929-3592 cell ^o^ ^o^ ^o^ ^o^

    “In a world older and more complete than ours, [the animals] move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.” –Henry Beston

  2. James Harper

    I love the way you weave the observation of many small details into a systematic whole. Beautiful writing, this former English major says.

    Jim Harper Sewanee ’76

    Sent from my iPad


  3. literaryeyes

    Have you been to New Jersey’s pine barrens or South Florida’s pine rocklands? Both wonderful habitats for birds, bees, butterflies, and some rare plants. Beautiful photos. I love grasslands!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s